Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)
As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.
Last season, Liverpool averaged 19.4 shots per match. This season, it's 12.6 per match, heavily skewed by the 25 taken against Stoke. Liverpool took 19.8 shots in the same five fixtures last season: 23 against Southampton, 21 at Swansea, 14 against United, 23 at Villa, and 18 against Stoke.
The 2012-13 version of Liverpool took more shots than any other Premier League side, attempting 58 more than the next closest side (Tottenham), an average of a shot-and-a-half more per game. No matter last season's numerous, numerous frustrations and failings, matches like Saturday's make you miss last season's Liverpool. You can't score if you don't (or can't) shoot.
However, at least Liverpool are putting a higher percentage of shots on target. Liverpool's shot accuracy was 31.4% last season. In these five fixtures, Liverpool put 32.3% of its shots were on target, scoring four goals. That percentage has risen 42.9% this season, resulting in one extra goal. And Liverpool are two points better off that the eight they earned in these fixtures last season.
I suspect we'll see that shot total rise, and Liverpool's shot accuracy fall, with Suarez returning to the side.
The above exercise holds true for Liverpool's passing as well, both overall and in the attacking third as well as in chances created. Liverpool averaged 437 completed passes and 521 attempted passes last season, a pass accuracy of 84.2%. They've surpassed that total for completed passes just once, at Villa, and for attempted passes twice: at Villa and against Stoke. Liverpool haven't hit 84.2% pass accuracy yet this season; the highest was 83.1% against Swansea, dropping into the 70s against both United and Southampton.
Liverpool averaged 114.8 completed and 158.8 attempted attacking third passes per match last season. They've beaten that total just once this season, in the first match against Stoke, which is also the only match where they've bettered last season's 72.3% final third pass accuracy. Liverpool averaged 14.4 chances created last season, but only 8.6 this season, again heavily skewed by the total against Stoke (18).
Missing Suarez, then Johnson, and now Coutinho, goes some way in explaining the change in both style and statistics, especially in attack. But it doesn't explain everything; Suarez missed five matches through suspension last season, Johnson missed a couple due to injury, and Coutinho didn't make his first appearance until mid-February. Those absences are not a complete answer for why this season's Liverpool has been so radically different than last season's. The second halves against Stoke, Villa, and United, and the entire match against Swansea, are evidence enough that there have been tactical choices behind the shift in style.
Yes, last season's Liverpool had numerous problems, but the metrics were moving in the right direction, even after Suarez's suspension. There has to be some happy medium. Liverpool desperately need to find a way to meld last season's attacking abilities with this season's newfound defensive solidity (well, the defensive solidity when all of Liverpool's first-choice defenders are available). Because Southampton's winning goal aptly demonstrates that it takes just one moment to ruin what otherwise was a decent defensive performance, allowing Southampton just four shots on target from eight chances created.
Yesterday's match was also notable for Liverpool's tactics in the final third. Give the ball to an attacker – usually Moses, Sturridge, Toure, Sterling or Henderson, in that order – and hope that they can dribble past a Southampton defender. Just as often as not, they could not, successful on 24 of 44 attempted dribbles, with 36 of those in Southampton's half but successful with just 18. According to Opta, it was the most take-ons attempted by a Premier League side since Opta began tracking the stat in 2006. Moses led the way with 15 attempted, successful with just six; Toure and Sturridge both completed five of eight. "Pass and move" without the pass. Which goes some way in explaining Southampton's dramatically high number of tackles.
Liverpool attempted 20.6 dribbles per match last season (successful with 9.9 per match), still second-highest in the league after Arsenal – Luis Suarez did play a majority of matches after all – but that's still nowhere near yesterday's total.
Finally, another word on Mignolet's passing. We covered this fairly thoroughly in the match review, and I don't want to pile on the man who's arguably been Liverpool's best player through the first five matches, but I'd like to highlight Bass Tuned To Red's take on the situation. The short version: it's getting worse – more back passes, long passes, and losses of possession against United, Swansea, and Southampton compared to Stoke and Villa – as teams realize that pressing Liverpool leads to profit. I also wholly agree with his (and Mihail Vladimirov's) belief that Liverpool's midfielders need to do a much better job of giving Mignolet options for the short pass. Mignolet completed just two passes to Lucas on Saturday, and none to Gerrard. But as also said in Saturday's match review, Liverpool's central midfielders need to do a better job in lots of areas.